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‘Court And Spark’: Joni Mitchell’s Commercial And Creative Breakthrough
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In Depth

‘Court And Spark’: Joni Mitchell’s Commercial And Creative Breakthrough

Putting the idea of Joni Mitchell as a sensitive folk singer to bed, ‘Court And Spark’ was a jazz-infused triumph that changed her career.


To say that Joni Mitchell’s sixth album, Court And Spark, was eagerly anticipated is an understatement. 1972’s For The Roses saw the singer-songwriter breaking from the exquisite introspection of the previous year’s Blue for a set of songs more concerned with the wider world – the gender divide, her prickly relationship with fame, the inspiration she took from nature – and with a tougher perspective on relationships. The music, too, showed the first signs of a shift, with Mitchell backed by a full band, and the drifting, open-ended possibilities of jazz informing songs such as Cold Blue And Sweet Fire and Woman Of Heart And Mind. For The Roses also suggested that the mainstream success that had eluded Mitchell to this point was in reach. When David Geffen, co-founder of Asylum, her record label at the time, challenged Mitchell to write a hit, she obliged with You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio, which reached No.25 in the US.

Exploring creative possibilities

Mitchell spent much of 1973 exploring the creative possibilities that For The Roses afforded her. It was the first year since 1968 and her debut album, Song To A Seagull, that she didn’t release a new record. During that time, Mitchell moved to Los Angeles, where she stayed with Geffen and observed the glitzy pomp of the “star-making machinery” first-hand, and made the sharp mental notes that would inform the Court And Spark song People’s Parties.

Listen to ‘Court And Spark’ here.

Mitchell’s relocation also meant that she had the pick of LA’s musicians when it came to finding a band to match her ever-expanding musical ambition. She had initially called upon drummer Russ Kunkel, who’d been on percussion duties for her previous two albums, to help with the demoing of Court And Spark, but the material wasn’t a good fit for Kunkel, who suggested, “I think you should get yourself a jazz drummer.”

Mitchell hit the city’s jazz clubs to find a new set of collaborators, eventually alighting on LA Express, the jazz fusion outfit originally formed in 1973 as the backing group of saxophonist Tom Scott. Mitchell invited the band – Scott, Max Bennett (bass), Larry Carlton (guitarist), Joe Sample (keyboards) and John Guerin (drums) – to play on a few Court And Spark tracks; eventually they recorded the whole album together, backed Mitchell on the tour that followed, and provided the musical muscle for Court And Spark’s follow-up, the 1975 classic The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. Taking full advantage of her starry address book, Mitchell also enlisted The Band’s Robbie Robertson, David Crosby, Graham Nash and comedy duo Cheech And Chong for cameos on the record.

A perfect melding of jazz and traditional songwriting

With engineer Henry Levy, Mitchell and her band hunkered down for much of 1973, developing the musical understanding that would make Mitchell’s intricate arrangements feel effortless. That chemistry is evident from Court And Spark’s title track, which, opening the record, begins intimately, with Mitchell delivering a meandering melody over jazz-inflected chords. As if by sleight of hand, LA Express fall in behind her one by one – by the second verse it’s a supple, full-band affair, more sophisticated and smoother than anything on a previous Mitchell album.

A perfect meeting of jazz sensibilities and traditional songwriting, the music exists to serve the song, rather than provide a vehicle for virtuosity (see the way the band drop out as Mitchell croons, “And you could complete me/I’d complete you”). That sense of serene excellence at work continues with Help Me, an ode to the dawning of a new love that manages to sound as dizzying and breathless as its subject. Released as a single in March 1974, the song took Mitchell into the US Top 10, where it peaked at No.7.

Another hit followed with Free Man In Paris, which reached No.22 in the summer and still stands as one of the best Joni Mitchell songs. An irresistibly breezy track featuring snaking guitar lines from José Feliciano and chorus harmonies from Crosby and Nash, the song, inspired by a trip Mitchell took to Paris with David Geffen, was one of many on Court And Spark preoccupied with ideas of freedom. The vacation in the French capital, and time away from showbiz, had done wonders for the Asylum boss, and Mitchell was moved to write about her friend’s fleeting joie de vivre.

As if to underline the reality of life back in LA, People’s Parties follows. In lesser hands, it could be little more than a cynical takedown of vacuous showbiz parties but, as the song progresses, Mitchell explores the vulnerabilities of other guests, as well as herself, adding an emotional punch to counter the lush musical backdrop. It segues into the staggering Same Situation, a song that addresses insecurity in a relationship and which, had Mitchell written it a few years earlier, may have been despairing and insular. Here though, she turns it into something outward-looking and universal.

The sweet spot of Joni Mitchell’s career

Car On A Hill opens the second half of the album, giving LA Express a chance to really dig in for one of Court And Spark’s heavier tracks, with some mind-melting vocal passages from Mitchell and an avant-garde breakdown or two for good measure. Again, the sound fits Mitchell’s lyrical perspective: the anguish of Blue is long gone, here replaced by sensuality as talk of “so much sweetness in the dark” is matched by the sultry musical backdrop.

Down To You follows – a musically sprawling, at times doomy jazz ballad that explores emotional struggles caused by the apparent freedom offered by casual encounters. That stormy interlude is followed by the bittersweet beauty of Just Like This Train, and the mood is lightened even further by the rollicking boogie of Raised On Robbery, featuring quicksilver guitar lines from Robbie Robertson and a barnstorming sax solo from Tom Scott.

Set to a beautiful, swooping melody and one of the hardest-edged backing tracks on the record, Trouble Child sees Mitchell speak frankly of her experiences of therapy while stinging brass sections punctuate LA Express’ slow-moving bass riffs. It’s brave and brilliant, though the mood swiftly changes when the song merges with a cover of Annie Ross’ 1952 vocalese song Twisted, a satirical look at psychoanalysis that Mitchell plays for laughs with the help of heavy-lidded pranksters Cheech And Chong.

Released on 17 January 1974, Court And Spark went on to become Mitchell’s most commercially successful album, reaching No.2 in the US and topping the charts in her native Canada while earning her the sort of widespread acclaim which was previously reserved for her male contemporaries. For many fans, it marks the sweet spot of Mitchell’s career – the point where her songwriting gifts were perfectly matched by her musical ambition. The following tour, with LA Express, was captured on Miles Of Aisles, a live double-album released in November 1974 that finally put the idea of Mitchell of a sensitive folk singer to bed. From here she could – and did – go anywhere.

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